Thursday, November 01, 2012

What We're Reading: New Fiction

Ancient Light, by John Banville

I have argued in the past that the great writers of contemporary English prose are Irish. John Banville may be the best of them. Great prose writers leave us feeling that most of us employ in our daily lives but a fraction of the legacy and potential of our language, that words are miracles equal to our experiences and up to the challenge and nuance of our imaginations, that they are in fact essentially correlated to the limits or potential of what we have the ability to imagine and tell. Ancient Light is a story in which the characters and their actions are realized with a fullness and precision that make them feel absolutely real to us. The author describes details about objects we have all observed (but never put into words) and transforms them into symbols and metaphors of nuanced emotion and character. These surprises are but one of the delights of his prose style, along with the sly humor that lets the reader feel he is sharing some secret amusement with the author, a delight in circumstance, a description, or a line of dialogue the narrator himself may have missed, compounding the humor for us by his lack of self-awareness.

The major story line in the book is immediately engaging to the reader. In his late middle age a stage actor, Alexander Cleave, remembers for us the formative relationship of his life, his torrid affair (when he was a boy of 15 years old) with his best friend’s mother, a woman of 35. We are drawn in by our naturally prurient interest in the details of this illicit affair. The narrator tells us all. This affair is an unexpected surprise in the young Alex’s life, the rare and unbelievable fulfillment of every boy’s fantasy. We learn that a fantasy come true can be everything imagined but also bring with it problems and emotions with which a boy is not able to deal. The description of Alex’s emotions and actions seem exactly true to the situation. The older Alex in his narration of the story seems to realize in retrospect his youthful callowness and selfishness, and tells the story with a sense of embarrassment and distance from his innocent and younger self. Many of the disjunctions between youth and maturity make us smile. Importuned for sex by Alex, his lover, Mrs. Gray, asks, “Is that all you ever think about?” Any 15-year-old boy knows the answer to that. We also sense that the older and now less sexually demanding and impulsive Alex enjoys recounting (and reimagining) the sexual energy and abandon of his boyhood experiences, however bereft they left him.

The story of this first affair is woven into a story of the trials of Alexander Cleave’s life as it is now. It becomes apparent to us as the novel closes that the loss of this first love was an experience Alex was too immature to deal with, that it was devastating in ways and to a depth that it might not have been for an adult. It has left him with an inability to reconcile himself to other losses in his life. We also learn things about his lover that cause us to view her role and the affair itself in perhaps a different light. An uncertainty persists in the mind of the narrator throughout his story about how much of the past he is remembering and how much he is inventing. He knows that certain events and scenes could not have happened the way he says, or at the time he says they happened, that there are narrative details and continuities that elude him. But what makes this in the end a moving and compelling novel is the suggestion that at as much as our memories may fail us, and as much as we may invent our past, in important experiences the damage itself remains a persistent truth that cries out for an ascription of meaning however mutable that ascription might be over the course of a lifetime. We are fated to use both the significant joys and hurts of the past, recalled however imperfectly, to understand our present. There is so much in Ancient Light, so many themes and puzzles and things of wonderment. They are things that you want to discuss with others. This would be a wonderful choice for a book club.

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